Hollywood blockbusters only succeed by raising the pace, scale or budget of the on-screen action. These days it’s safe to assume that the craziest stunts and sequences are made possible with plenty of green screen or CG artistry. But when a director and crew are committed to realism, or there’s simply no way to fake a shot, there’s no limit they’ll go to until the job is done.
Not every movie stunt or sequence needs to be on an epic scale to be a serious challenge. CG was used heavily in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but it was Tobey Maguire’s role as the awkward Peter Parker who got people to care about his computer-generated counterpart. Peter first discovers his superpowers in a high school cafeteria, in a sequence the studio actually wanted cut in order to stay on schedule. Raimi insisted it was needed for the origin story, and went on to film a 16-hour day, with a stunt involving Peter’s ‘Spidey Sense’ largely to blame.
Using his heightened senses to catch Mary Jane and the contents of her lunch one item at a time, audiences assumed some trickery was at play. But the actor really did pull off the trick for real (aided by some glue to keep his hand stuck to the tray). It took hours to finally pull off the trick, but the scene would become one of the most heavily-marketed, and a fan-favorite moment that helped establish Spidey as a lighthearted but talented hero.
Advances in moviemaking and cameras mean that the concept of a “long take” or extended Steadicam shot are more common than the used to be. Movie fans are sure to have their favorites, and with his first Kill Bill, director Quentin Tarantino tried something especially ambitious. While most long takes follow behind or in front of an actor, the film’s nightclub sequence flew around, under, over and through the set, laying out the environment and character locations.
With so many wide angles and precisely-timed moments, it took over six hours of rehearsals before cameras could roll – an insane amount of time, considering the shot itself is just two minutes long. After the seventeenth take, veteran Steadicam operator Larry McConkey apparently collapsed from exhaustion. What’s most impressive about the shot is that unlike other long takes, Tarantino puts the sights and sounds of the entire set in the spotlight, encouraging the audience to take it all in, barely thinking about the camera capturing the footage, or the person holding it.
Iron Man 3
Despite acting as the face of Marvel’s movie universe, once Robert Downey, Jr. puts on the Iron Man armor, it’s special effects teams who make the character a box office hit. But when Iron Man 3 called for the hero to rescue a dozen free-falling Air Force One passengers, someone decided to give the Red Bull Skydiving Team a call. The veteran adrenaline junkies didn’t disappoint, and agreed that even if the backgrounds would have to be changed in post-production, strapping cameras to skydivers and capturing actual jumps would be worth it in the end.
The team spent a week jumping continuously – without goggles, and from the extreme heights possible without air tanks – wearing parachutes hidden under their costumes (that can still be spotted in a few shots). Some on the team were even given roles as part of the plane’s crew prior to the sequence, just to drive home the point: when their characters are scrambling to link hands or fall in formation, the audience is seeing what actually took place thousands of feet in the air.
The Lord of the Rings
There was plenty of green screen work and CG wizardry in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – but not as much as you might think. Different sized sets were constructed to make Hobbits seems just a fraction of the size of their human co-stars, but the director wanted to film real models, real actors and real scenes as much as possible. To do it, the filmmakers turned to some old school tricks, using forced perspective, not computers to shrink or enlarge their stars.
By placing Frodo much farther away from the lens than Gandalf, audiences were instantly fooled. But when the two were forced to interact inside Frodo’s home, the crew had to pioneer a brand new approach. Even a small pan of the camera from side to side meant moving one of the actors along with it, sliding Sir Ian McKellen in front of the lens, and shifting parts of the set just to maintain the illusion. Seeing how the shots were constructed is still hard to believe, but the award-winning results and realistic feel speak for themselves.